City commissioners hear from residents at town hall

7/31/2013

By SCOTT AUST

By SCOTT AUST

saust@gctelegram.com

Safe housing, weeds and general property upkeep were a few of the issues brought to the Garden City Commission's attention during a Tuesday night town hall meeting.

The city holds town hall meetings on the fifth Tuesday whenever a month has five Tuesdays. The meetings are a chance for the commission to hear comments, questions or concerns from members of the public on any issue. No business is taken up by the commission during the town hall.

Commissioner Melvin Dale reiterated his desire ensure the public has safe, clean and livable rental homes or apartments that have minimum acceptable standards for things such as running water, window screens and smoke detectors.

Dale also hopes to find others who agree with him to build support for some type of inspection program.

"I think there are minimum standards that should be offered to everyone who comes here. We shouldn't expect them to live in a box, or a garage or some other place like that," Dale said.

Dale said he wants to have a safe community for people to live in, and wants to avoid tragedies that have happened in the past, such as a fire in 2004 in which a young boy died and his mother was seriously injured when they couldn't escape through a chicken wire-covered window, or another fire in which a mother and two children died in a rental without a smoke detector.

"These are all things that may be prevented if we have some sort of code enforcement in our community. I'm going to work real hard as a commissioner to get enough support in the community to see if we can do something," he said.

One city resident, Karen Livingston, said she supported Dale's intent. Livingston said, in her opinion, once a rental is vacated and up for rent again, it ought to have to pass an inspection by someone to make sure it is up to code before it is eligible to be rented again.

"I think that's a good idea and something we could look into," Dale said. "But we have to make sure there's enough community support to be able to fund it, because it would probably take hiring inspectors, or adding people to the fire department to do it."

Commissioner Chris Law cautioned everyone from painting all landlords with the same brush.

"I would encourage you not to lump all landlords in with a few bad ones. We have a lot of good landlords, too. We've got to be careful about throwing in, 'landlords this, landlords that,'" Law said. "That's not the case. Dealing with tenants can be difficult at times."

Regarding the city's oft-stated housing shortage, Livingston said she believes the city really has a shortage of affordable housing, not really a shortage of housing, based on the large increase in appraised value she received on her house this year.

Livingston said her home's valuation jumped from $130,400 last year to $144,700 this year, despite no changes being made to the home for at least 13 years. She subsequently had an independent appraisal done, which concluded her home had a fair market value of $127,640.

"I'm hearing from my real estate agent that because of this inflation in housing prices they have a difficult time finding qualified buyers who can pay the mortgage it would take to buy," she said.

Mayor Dan Fankhauser said property valuations and appraisals are a function of Finney County, not the city.

Several people expressed concern about weeds and the lack of care some property owners, both commercial and residential, take in their property's appearance.

The city's take is that it is a property owner's responsibility to maintain their property, though a landlord in the audience said, in his opinion, upkeep of yards on rental properties is the tenant's responsibility, and some tenants take pride in yards while others don't.

Kaleb Kentner, community planning director, explained that the city's code enforcement department reacts based on complaints received. When a complaint comes in, the code compliance officer goes out to look at the neighborhood. If a problem is seen, a door hanger is left alerting the resident to the problem and asking them to call the office. A follow-up is done within three days to see if the problem has been corrected. If not, the city sends a letter to the property owner giving them 10 days to address the issues. If that doesn't work, the city may step in, clean up a property and charge the costs of the clean-up back to the property owner.

Due to a concern about public health, Sister Janice Thome urged commissioners to reject a request made a couple of months ago by a few motel owners to ease the city's smoking ban by allowing smoking in up to 20 percent of hotel rooms.

"If there is such a problem with keeping rooms full, then I don't understand why we're building new hotels several places in town," she said. "There must be enough business to support at least three new ones."

City Manager Matt Allen, in response to a question, said the smoking issue will come back to the city commission at some point in the near future, possibly within a couple of months.

In response to a question about fireworks, Commissioner Janet Doll said the complaints she's heard about this year's Fourth of July involved litter and not cleaning up afterward, noise and activity going on past 10:30, and some people hindering traffic by setting up too far into the street.

"This year they seemed to be excessive. There must be a new one out there that has a very loud boom to it. Somebody commented that it sounded like a war zone," Doll said.

The commission indicated it will probably take a closer look at what's allowed next year.

One audience member suggested that the city improve and widen Jones Avenue from the Taylor/Kansas Avenue intersection to downtown, as well as install sidewalks along Taylor and Fulton streets to accommodate people with disabilities and children attending school nearby.

Fankhauser said the biggest problem with the widening idea is acquiring right of way.

"We don't have enough there to expand those lanes. You got a motel there and businesses," he said.

A question via email expressed concern about lane markings at the intersection of Crestway and Kansas Avenue. The resident indicated there are faint marks showing where a left turn lane used to be, and asked for the city to mark them again to reduce traffic backups and delays.

Sam Curran, public works director, said the lanes were painted five to six years ago when Kansas Avenue was widened, despite not being marked before that project. Now, public works staff is debating whether to repaint the lanes or let them fade out completely.

"We're kind of waiting for comments on that. We don't know if a left turn is really justified at this time, so we're kind of in between right now. We felt like it was a mistake the first time and we're just trying to cover it up and start over again," he said.

Curran suggested taking the issue to the traffic advisory committee in September for a recommendation.

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